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Behind the scenes at the death squads of Chechnya

Formal hostilities may have ceased in Chechnya, but civilians continue to be abducted, tortured and murdered by the authorities in the region. Igor Kalyapin, head of the Committee Against Torture, talks to Svetlana Reiter about the remarkable and dangerous work being done to seek justice for the victims.

The Committee Against Torture works in five regions of the Russian Federation, including the republics of Bashkortostan and Chechnya. In all the regions our work consists of trying to compel the agencies of criminal investigation (previously called the Procurator’s Office, now the “Committee of Investigation”), to investigate properly crimes committed by the police and members of the other special services.

Investigators are mostly not interested in bringing these malefactors to justice and they’re well versed in how to ensure a case brought to them will go no further. But at the Committee Against Torture we know the rules of the game too and, wherever we can, we prevent investigators from blocking cases. We have devised a series of legal procedures enabling NGOs to carry out their own investigations and insert the results into the criminal proceedings, even where investigators fight them all the way.

In ordinary regions the work is never easy, but nevertheless we manage to drag a large proportion of the cases we take on to court. Our count to date is 75 cases of charges successfully brought against state employees (mostly policemen) for the illegal use of violence. 

In Chechnya too, we have had significant successes. Previously, when the work involved dealing with soldiers of the federal army, we saw many successfully prosecuted. However, these days, in the personal fiefdom of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, where federal agents have handed over to local police and special services, the work has become exponentially more difficult and the extraordinary impediments to justice are worth detailing at length.

The Feds

One of our cases in Chechnya concerned a gym teacher, Alaudi Sadykov, who had never been involved any trouble. An elderly man, he worked in a group sweeping the streets in the capital, Grozny. One day in 2000 he was sorting out rubbish heaps when an armoured personnel vehicle went past. It stopped and the driver asked the way to some street or other. Sadykov explained how to get there, but the people in the APV said “No, you get in and show us the way.” He was taken to the local multi-disciplinary police team station, where there were policemen from the distant, central Siberian town of Khantiy-Mansiisk who had been detailed to Grozny. They tied him to a radiator, cut off his ear, burnt the palm of his hand with a heated rod and knocked out all his teeth. After three months he was thrown out on the side of the road. Half dead, Sadykov managed to crawl as far as his house and the next day he submitted a statement to the office of the procurator.

"We, the Russian taxpayers, are paying for men who are called policemen to cut off people's ears."

What they were trying to get out of him is unclear - they just wanted to torture him. He was held in an improvised concentration camp set up inside Grozny's Oktyabrsky district police station. This was sanctioned by the procurator's office and he was concealed from European diplomats who were visiting Chechnya.

"Violent disappearance" is a regular occurrence in Chechnya. The perpetrators are well known to all, but because they are protected by powerful patrons within the authorities, they are effectively untouchable and official investigators are too scared to take on the cases.

The sadistic policemen were identified – both we and the official investigators have their personal details – but they've all been sent back to Khantiy-Mansiisk and are continuing to serve there in the police force. The investigation has ground to a halt: there is no official record of those policemen ever coming to Chechnya and when investigators went to Khantiy-Mansiisk to identify them, they were told “Get out of here while the going's good. We don't hand our own people over. Those lads are heroes because they took part in an operation to deal with counter-revolutionaries.” As a result, the case had to be taken to the European Court of Human Rights and Russia has had to compensate the victim, Sadykov, approximately 90,000 euros. So it's we, the Russian tax payer, who are paying for the "bold deeds" of the heroes from Khantiy-Mansiisk, while people who like chopping off ears are called policemen.

The local police: Kadyrov's men

Large-scale hostilities in the valleys of the Republic of Chechnya have long since come to an end, but kidnapping continues in this apparently prosperous region. This used to be the domain of the federal police, who would paint over the numbers on their cars and wear masks to make identification difficult. Now identification is no problem: those who commit brutalities are usually local policemen and we know their names and which station they're from. They show their documents when they arrest someone and take him away from his home. And that's it – he disappears and in five years not a single one of these so-called “Kadyrov policemen” has been brought to court. The official description of this occurence is “kidnapped by persons unknown”, although everyone in the area will know exactly who these “unknown persons” are. 

"Russian law doesn't seem to describe this crime adequately. It's not kidnapping, because here things are done openly, even ostentatiously. Nor is it arrest, because are none of the appropriate legal measures are observed. International law has a more suitable term: 'violent disappearance'."

I'm not even sure how this particular crime can be described in Russian law. “Kidnapping?” Not really, because people are kidnapped in secret, whereas in these cases everything is done openly, often ostentatiously. “Arrest”?  Again, no, because arrest presupposes a whole series of legal measures: an indictment, confinement in a place stipulated by the law, access to a lawyer, etc.  However, international law has the more suitable term, “violent disappearance”. Two years ago Russia signed the UN Convention which covers this kind of crime, but people are still disappearing in Chechnya, just as they always have, without trace. When relatives go to the Investigating Committee, criminal charges are brought, but the case is never investigated. In time cases such as these are archived: the charity Memorial estimates the number of these cases at around 3,000.

Investigation Bureau no.2

One case concerning Kadyrov men was, however, successfully investigated. The trial was held in 2007 in the Supreme Court of the Republic of Chechnya, though the crimes were committed in 2005.

Ruslan Asuyev, Islam Agayev and Aslan Dzhamulayev were three policemen who wanted to fast-track their careers by boosting their rate of terminating insurgents. Their method of operation involved offering prestigious police jobs to people and inviting them for interview. There they would proceed to dress them in camouflage clothing, arm them and tell them to run, upon which they would shoot them dead. With the victims carrying weapons, they could be passed off as militants. In other cases, women were kidnapped in the street and murdered; the policemen then put suicide bomber's belts on them in order that they too were tagged as militants.

"Three policemen who wanted to fast-track their careers employed a method of offering police jobs to people and inviting them for 'interview', where they would dress them up in camouflage, give them guns, tell them to run and then and then kill them, passing them off as militants. Their 'success rate', unsurprisingly, was extraordinary."

Their "success rate" was, unsurprisingly, extraordinary and their careers really took off. They also made raids into Dagestan and Ingushetia, where they kidnapped businessmen and demanded ransoms for them. And this was their undoing. The Investigation Bureau no.2 – whose officers themselves were no strangers to committing human rights abuses – uncovered what the Asuyev gang was up to and, remarkably, the perpetrators were tried and convicted. At the time this Bureau answered to competitors of President Ramzan Kadyrov, and since then Kadyrov has used the Bureau's own poor public reputation to oust these competitors from positions of influence, consolidating his total control over the power vertical.

Estemirova

Midway through the 2000s the carte blanche for carrying out illegal violence was gradually transferred from the Feds to the representatives of local defence and law enforcement agencies, which were controlled by Kadyrov. As a consequence, four years ago we began to receive complaints about the new Kadyrov policemen, rather than the Feds. Each time the staff in our Chechen division told me that the suspects were people answering to one of three men: Deputy Adam Delimkhanov, Deputy Chairman of the Government Magomed Daudov, or the head of OMON (special services), Alikhan Tsakayev. Each time they told me it had been made clear that if they took up these cases, they and their relatives would be intimidated, tortured and murdered. As director of the organisation, I therefore made the decision that we simply did not have the ability or the resources to take on these cases, and we had to explain this to victims' families who had approached us.

Nataliya Estemirova

Without any special training or experience, Nataliya
Estemirova at the charity Memorial took on cases that
even the Committee Against Torture felt were too
dangerous, but this ended with her murder in 2009.
(Photo: rawinwar.org)

So people went to Memorial, where Natasha Estemirova, without any specialist knowledge or relevant experience, was brave enough to take the cases on. It was only after her murder that I discovered how she and colleagues were dealing with kidnapping cases. It was not only bold, but efficient too and could have worked. But it ended with her murder. I realise that she had being doing what we had refused to do and that our Committee either had to start taking on new disappearance cases or leave Chechnya. That at least would be honest: close the office and say that it was no longer possible to work here.

Joint flying squads

But we decided this would not be the right way to proceed. Our lawyers who live in Chechnya cannot undertake this kind of work – they would end up with the same fate as befell Estemirova. So we started using joint mobile teams (a system which had already been trialled in other parts of Russia where there had been widespread human rights abuses). Our lawyers from other regions started coming to Chechnya, working on a shift basis. A shift consists of three people, who stay in Chechnya for a month and are then replaced by others. We rent a flat in the centre of Grozny to act as our office. In this we are copying the work of the official Investigating Committee: most of their staff memebers also come to Chechnya for a few months, work at their base and only leave the base in cases of extreme necessity – and never alone. When they travel to investigation meetings there are never less than three of them; at the base and in their cars they have recording equipment, so everything is recorded and written down, affording a modicum of protection. Each staff member has a personal dictaphone, which is in operation 24/7.  We do everything we can to protect our members of staff. We have developed a reputation in Chechnya for employing high-tech methods and this itself acts as a deterrent. Yet the technology would, of course, be no protection against bullets if they were to start shooting at us.

"The only way we can operate in Chechnya now is to use non-local staff, fly them in for short rotating shifts in Grozny, make sure they always travel in threes and ensure they have personal dictaphones that are switched on 24/7."

The first shift arrived in Chechnya on 30 November 2009, with the simple objective of taking on a few of the new (2009) kidnapping cases, and trying to work out what goes on inside the Investigating Committee and why not a single case was actually being investigated.

We took on nine cases and our lawyers became official participants in the criminal trials, representing the victims. In all the cases charges had been brought under Article 126 of the Criminal Code, which covers responsibility for kidnapping. This article subsequently turned into Article 105 (“murder”), because it's clear that if a person has not been found after a long period of time, he or she is probably no longer alive. Of these nine cases, two are no longer active: in one case we were able to establish that the disappearance was not for criminal reasons; in the other the victim’s relatives decided against taking us on, which is understandable – by making a statement to us they’d be endangering themselves. Here are some insights into two of the remaining seven cases we are currently working on: 

The oil regiment

Estemirova was working on the case of a young man called Apti Zainalov and we have taken it on. He came to Chechnya in 2009 from Saratov in southern Russia.  He had a completely clean slate: for a short time he was involved in operations during the First Chechen War (1994-6) on the separatist side, but then who wasn't? He was amnestied and spent several years in the Saratov region. He wanted to go and study in Egypt, but it didn't work out, so he decided to come home to his mother. He never made it.

He flew into Chechnya on 26 June 2009 and got a taxi at Grozny Airport. He went as far as Pervomaisky street in the centre of town, where he was seized, dragged out of the car and put into another car belonging to the so-called “oil regiment” (officially known as the Special Regiment of the Patrol Guard Service of the Chechen Ministry of the Interior Extradepartmental Protection Service).  This service is supposed to protect oil industry sites and pipelines, but the once-huge oil processing infrastructure was almost completely destroyed during the Chechen wars, so there is very little work to be done in this area. The divisions of the regiment therefore do whatever they like: it's a whole army, unlike any other, commanded by Sharip Delimkhanov, the brother of the Adam, the aforementioned parliamentary deputy. The Delimkhanov clan is extremely influential in Chechnya: Ramzan Kadyrov calls Adam his preferred successor, despite Adam’s presence on the international wanted list.

Committee Against Torture staff in Chechnya

Following Nataliya Estemirova's murder, the Committee Against Torture has employed a new tactic to
enable them to operate in Chechnya: rotating mobile teams of staff temporarily seconded to the region for a few months. (Photo: Committee Against Torture)

Apti Zainalov was detained and simply disappeared. His mother, Aima Makaeva, went to the Procurator's office and a case was opened under Article 126, but nothing was done to investigate. Aima went to Memorial and two weeks later staff members there discovered by chance that in one of the surgical wards of the central regional hospital there was a patient with gunshot wounds to his stomach being kept under guard in strict isolation – and this turned out to be Apti. Estemirova went to the inter-district procurator, who kept her waiting two hours. During that time Apti was whisked off elsewhere, in full view of his mother, who was trying in vain to get into the hospital.

It later emerged that a week earlier, representatives of the Procurator's office had received information that Apti was being held in the hospital and had gone to check on the situation. The official document reads: “In one of the wards a young man, 28-32 years old, 180-85 cms height, with a bandaged head, was being guarded by two unidentified military personnel in camouflage uniform. The guards prevented the procurator from entering the ward by shooting at him and threatening to kill him.”  This is the internal document recording the investigation which had been carried out at our request. Some people in camouflage uniform can say to the Procurator’s officials “one more step and you're a gonner”, and the brave servants of Russian law obediently turn tail and flee.

After that Zainalov was in the hospital for another week and nothing happened.  The procurator, having found out where the kidnap victim was being held, didn't lift a finger to get him released. On receipt of a signal from somewhere, the victim was then hurriedly removed. It's logical to presume that Apti is no longer alive, but we are working on his case and his mother is, of course, very vulnerable. If well-trained procurators stand up on their hind legs for these people, knocking off an old Chechen woman will be no problem for them.

One who lived to tell the tale

There is one case I am quite hopeful about. Not because the investigation has been properly carried out – it hasn’t – but  because of all the seven cases we are working on, this is the only one in which the kidnapping victim has survived and can act as a first-hand witness. His name is Islam Umarpashaev. 

His parents told us that in December 2009 their 26-year-old son had been taken away from their home in Grozny and that he then disappeared. There was no formal reason for his arrest. He had visited an internet chat-room on his mobile phone and posted some unflattering remarks about Chechen policemen. This was picked up and he was arrested and held for four months, chained to a pipeline inside the OMON (special forces) base in Grozny. The plan was then to kill him and pass him off as a militant. When he was in the basement they made no secret of the fact that they were preparing him for the holiday on 9 May: “We'll put a uniform on you, give you a machine gun and you'll die like a man!”

He was freed for several reasons. Firstly our flying squad was already operating in Chechnya, so we quickly made a commotion. We appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and they reacted very quickly, which coincided with our information campaign. This meant it would have been very difficult for his captives to pass Umarpashaev off as a militant.  Secondly, we managed to get hold of his telephone bill and quickly establish where he had been taken.

Four months later, on 2 April 2010 Police Investigator Anzor Dyshniyev from Grozny’s Oktyabrsky police station personally took Islam out of the OMON basement. But to release him, Dynyshev had to know where he had been for these four months. He made Islam promise to write a statement to the effect that he had been in the Moscow region all that time.  He then rang up the investigating officer, Isayev, who was dealing with Islam's case, to tell him to come and write this statement. But it turned out that the commotion we had raised had caused Umarpashaev case to be escalated to the attention of Prosecutor Gaiberkov, who looks after the most important cases. Islam was allowed home, but told that he would have to go to the Oktyabrsky police station and make a statement that he had been playing truant for four months and had no complaints against the police.

Islam was shaved, as his beard had grown enormously, and handed over to his father and brother who had come to collect him, and perhaps he would actually have made the statement about being in the Moscow region, but his parents were terrified that further conspiracy was afoot and that the recent Moscow metro explosion, which had been blamed on Chechen militants, would then be “pinned” on him. They decided to ask our advice and we took the decision to get him out of Chechnya as quickly as possible. That night we put him on a plane for Moscow and from there by car (to confuse any trackers) to Nizhny Novgorod. On the way Islam told us that although he had been beaten at the beginning of his imprisonment, after that they only roughed him up. They treated him like a good farmer treats his cattle: the food wasn't bad, because a proper militant has to look in pretty good shape.

When the Chechen OMON discovered that Islam had disappeared, they arrested his father and brother, saying that they would not be released until Islam was returned. I was telephoned in Nizhny Novgorod by Investigator Dyshniyev and told the same thing. I immediately rang the Chechen Minister of Internal Affairs, Alkhanov, who promised me they would be released. They weren't and it took another telephone call to tell him that the police were deceiving both us and him before they were actually allowed to go. Subsequently I learnt that one of the policemen had screamed at Islam's father and brother: “I don't give a shit about Alkhanov – he's only a general and I am a relative of Ramzan [Kadyrov]. I have more clout than he does!”

After that I started getting official requests to produce Islam Umarpashaev.  Relying on the amount of time needed for a letter to reach Chechnya, I answered truthfully in every case, but moved Islam on somewhere else, so they were never able to catch up with him. While the cat and mouse game was going on, we got Prosecutor Gairbekov to agree to countersign the evidence, as he is bound to do by law. Umarpashaev gave his evidence in Nizhny Novgorod and at our insistence his detailed explanation was included in the case files. To be doubly sure, we took Islam to meet the Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, where we wrote another explanation and sent a copy to Chechnya.

The next stage required Islam to go to the OMON base and confirm exactly where he had been held, but it took us more than six months to get into the base.  Gairbekov explained that they wouldn't let him in to the base and told us in confidence: “I have to live here, and they'll kill me.” He took no official steps: he just tried to convince us that we should bring Umarpashaev to him for questioning. We realised full well why he was asking for this and raised the question of state protection.

At the end of September 2010 we brought Islam back to Grozny. There was a week’s wait before Gairbekov could see him. Islam and his parents had an armed guard and one day this guard took Islam’s father to the house of the OMON commander, Alikhan Tsakaev, who demanded that all the accusations be withdrawn within the space of 24 hours. In return Tsakaev promised that OMON would leave the family alone for ever.

Alikhan Tsakaev

Alikhan Tsakaev, head of the OMON
(special services) in Chechnya, 
apparently thinks nothing of threatening
investigators with murder.

We realised that we had to get the whole family out to a safe place and hand the case over to a higher-level investigating officer, or another region. And the officer should not have any relatives in Chechnya. We petitioned the Investigation Committee at the Russian Prosecutor General's Office to take on the case. They refused, but following a political campaign on our part, which saw us send the petition to all EU embassies and consulates, and pressure from the EU Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg, the case was passed on to another agency, the Investigation Department for Especially Important Cases at the Chief Investigation Department for the North Caucasus and Southern Federal District. In mid-January 2011 Umarpashaev’s case was taken on by Igor Sobol (head of the group investigating the murder of Natasha Estemirova) a good man and a good investigator. Success at last!

Sobol’s first step was to question Tsakaev, which until then no one had managed to do. It was obviously a formality and Tsakaev probably said he knew no one called Umarpashaev. Sobol told him that the next day he would be coming with Islam to the OMON base to check the victim’s evidence at the scene of the crime. Tsakaev apparently started shouting that no one came on to his territory without his permission and that he would tell his men to open fire. 

The next day we went to the base with Islam. There was no shooting, thank heavens, and Islam was able to confirm his evidence.

Sobol is doing all he can: if a report he has requested doesn’t come in, he follows it up, taking it higher and higher up the chain of command. Worryingly, he told us that the Chechen Ministry of the Interior would no longer provide official protection – not that ever really had provided protection, and for the last month we have been living in a neighbouring republic, but I wanted the Ministry at least to be accountable, were anything to go wrong. I think that Sobol’s activity has worried many people and someone high up is determined to silence Islam Umarpashaev. So now the family are living somewhere in Central Russia in a house in a forest, cut off from any communications and under heavy guard.

The Kremlin and Kadyrov’s Chechnya

It’s quite clear to me that the Russian Ministry of the Interior Temporary Task Force (VOGOiP) and the FSB have had strict instructions not to touch Kadyrov and his people, so as not to destabilise the situation in Chechnya. So, on personal instructions from Mr Putin (as I understand it) Kadyrov has absolute carte blanche.

"If the people who are responsible for the policy of violence in the north Caucasus really think that with Kadyrov’s help they can normalise the situation, then they’re seriously mistaken."

Ramzan Kadyrov

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has carte
blanche from the Kremlin to run the region as a
personal fiefdom as long as he pursues a loyalist, anti-
separatist path. In practice this means the authorities
can kills anyone they like and pass them off as a militant.

The Kremlin regards Kadyrov as the only alternative to war. He’s a monster and an ogre, but he is holding the terrorists and Wahhabists in check and if he were to be sent for trial, then there would be mayhem. I know for a fact that the threats from Kadyrov and his people, and the impossibility of getting justice anywhere nearer than Strasburg, have driven a lot of young people to take to the mountains. They’re just sick of being afraid.

If the people who are responsible for the policy of violence in the north Caucasus really think that with Kadyrov’s help they can normalise the situation, then they’re seriously mistaken. The situation is nowhere near normal – it’s spreading, and not in a linear way, but exponentially.  All the “Chechen colonels” in Kadyrov’s inner circle have carte blanche to do what they want and are used to absolute power. Their professional warriors regard themselves as above Russian law and enjoy absolute impunity. They run protection rackets in neighbouring republics and along the “Don Highway” which goes as far as Moscow. They are busily acquiring land and real estate in the southern Russian cities of Stavropol and Krasnodar and have set up their own systems there.  They have access to enormous sums of money – and not just from the state budget, though that is considerable (ten times the size of regional budgets in the rest of Russia per head of the population). And they are almost independent of Russia – its law, its regulatory bodies, prosecution system, FSB and Investigation Committee.

By comparison with the current dynasty, the separatist government of Djokhar Dudaev in the early 1990s was a band of idle dreamers.

A version of this article was originally published in the Russian language edition of the magazine Esquire.

About the authors

Svetlana Reiter is a journalist working in Moscow. She is correspondent for the Moscow cultural magazine Bolshoi gorod and a special correspondent for Esquire Russia

 

Igor Kalyapin is Head of Committee against Torture, an interregional human rights association based in Nizhni-Novgorod


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